From The Economist - Feb. 2016
France's missing refugees
Migrants are streaming into Germany, but few are interested in France
ON A quiet bend of the River Oise, beside a wooded lake, the He de Loisirs activity centre usually runs sailing schools and high-wire tree-climbing adventures. Last autumn its dormitories were briefly turned into an emergency welcome centre for 98 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Today, however, the gardens outside the residential block are empty again, the wooden picnic benches deserted. The refugee families are already gone. Their speedy resettlement shows that France has plenty of capacity to absorb migrants. It also raises the question of why it is that while Germany is coping with a vast flood of Syrian refugees, France is attracting only a trickle.
The refugees who turned up in this new town, some 40km (25 miles) north-west of Paris, travelled in specially chartered coaches from Munich last September. Officials from the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA) had gone to Munich in a gesture of solidarity to persuade refugees to settle in France, to help relieve the pressure on the Germans. Less than 48 hours after Cergy offered to take them in, the first coach pulled up outside the activity centre.
"The welcome in Cergy was really great," says Ali Tarabein, a former seed trader, who fled Syria via Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos before making a four-day journey overland to Germany. Dozens of locals brought clothes and toys. "Cergy has always been very welcoming to people who come from elsewhere," says Jean-Paul Jeandon, the Socialist mayor of the town, which is informally twinned with a village in Palestine and another in Senegal. Within two weeks, all primary-aged refugee children were in a local school. Adults, none of whom spoke French, were given language classes while they awaited official papers. By mid-December all the original refugees had been offered housing, five of them in Cergy and others elsewhere in France.
Asylum applications in France take an average of two years to process, but officials in Cergy cut through the bureaucratic thicket and speeded things up. It helped that the town is no stranger to new arrivals, with a mix of 130 nationalities. Many refugees were skilled, among them a dentist and an engineering student, and the numbers were manageable. "If we'd had hundreds or even thousands it would have been more complex," says Mr Jeandon.
Yet it is precisely those low numbers that are puzzling, not just in Cergy but in France as a whole. Overall asylum applications rose last year by 22%, but to just 79,000-nothing remotely close to the million-plus who registered in Germany. In 2015,158,657 Syrians completed asylum applications in Germany, compared with only 3,553 in France. Last year the European Union agreed on a relocation programme to share 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece. By mid-January France had taken in only 19; another 43 arrived this week.
The explanation seems to be a mix of migrants' relatively weak ties to France, and the limited opportunities in a country with 10% unemployment. "I wanted to go to Sweden, then Germany or England," says Mr Tarabein, who had friends in those countries and spoke English but not French. He ruled out Britain after friends warned him on Facebook and WhatsApp about the perils of trying to cross from the French port of Calais: "It was too dangerous, I don't want to die." As for France, he says he had heard it took months to get papers (France does not allow refugees to work for nine months) and that Syrian refugees there "live on the streets". It was only when the OFPRA officials promised fast-track settlement that he agreed to take his seat on the coach. Now, relocated to Nar-bonne, he is trying to bring his wife and three small children from Syria.
"It's Germany that is in an extraordinary situation, not France," says Pascal Brice, director of OFPRA. If the eu redistribution scheme is not yet working, he says, this is simply because refugees prefer to go to Germany. Yet there is no French political appetite to speed matters up. The xenophobic National Front continues to shape the debate. In a recent poll, 60% of French said they do not want more refugees, and terrorism has hardened sentiment. (Two of those behind the November 13th attacks in Paris posed as asylum-seekers.) Manuel Vails, the prime minister, put it bluntly last week: "The first message we need to send now, with the greatest of firmness, is to say that we will not welcome all the refugees in Europe." Cergy may turn out to be the exception, not the makings of a solution to ease Europe's migrant crisis. ■
FRANCE IS WAY TOO FRENCH TO INTEREST THE VAST MAJORITY OF REFUGEES. I'VE HAD PEOPLE FROM CANADA TELL ME ABOUT VISITING FRANCE……WITH NOT THE BEST COMPLIMENTS FOR FRANCE AT ALL - UNLESS YOU SPOKE FRENCH - Keith Hunt